The tech was the other side of it - the further you go into the '80s, the more a dual-cassette deck was a rare and beautiful thing. Ownership of such item in a family was a route to a technological demi-godhood. "I knew about two people who actually had one," said one of my correspondents when talking about this. "[It was] like they actually had the monolith from 2001 in their bedrooms. There was a lot of begging. Thinking back, it was probably the only way they could convince people to come to their houses after school. Their mums thought they were so popular."
While playground lore only had a mug trying to put more than one game on each side of the tape - just too inefficient, too fiddly - there was the gaming equivalent of mixtapes; big C90s filled with pretty much random games, and my earliest Spectrum education was just working my way through these endless experiences. I came to computers relatively late - I was 10 by the time I owned anything - and it pretty much acted as my Liberal Arts education in the form.
Then there was the issue of copy-protection. For just casual playground copying, circumventing the manual protection was almost part of the game. The Spectrum classic Jet Set Willy featured an enormously convoluted grid with a color in each square. People would sit down with graph paper and manually copy it out with crayons, a square at a time. There's few images in my head as nostalgically iconic early piracy as someone coloring on graph paper. In later eras, other devices were pragmatically disassembled. The beautiful LucasArt code wheels were dismantled, photocopied, and then assembled into functional facsimiles - to the distress of the original owner of the game. Sometimes the copying process uncovered something interesting. For instance, Team 17's Alien Breed 3D code book was black varnish printed on black paper. In practice, it was actually easier to read after you'd photocopied it.
Connection with the actual "real" pirate community was only ever peripheral. When the Amiga-era sent dual-cassette decks to the great copyright infringement graveyard in the sky, disk copying software proliferated. Those with trickier systems were cracked by mysterious men in mainland Europe, and a copy worked its way through the one guy at the school whose older brother actually had a modem. The continental origins of much of the software had some strange effects on the gaming gene pool.
One person I talked to only passed his GCSE French because of a pirated game. Because he couldn't stand the rote memorization required to learn a language, he was trailing in the subject, before acquiring a copy of the legendary action-game Flashback. He was obsessed with its rotoscoped glory, but there was one, small problem: It was only in French. He played through the entire game with a French-to-English dictionary beside him and somehow ended up with a functional enough vocabulary to scrape through. Saving the world and his education. That's some doing.
Retelling anecdotes like that, I can't help but feel romantic about it. Videogame piracy wasn't about funding terrorism or prostitution or dirty nihilists who want to blow up Sweden. It was like scrumping apples. It was innocent. We just liked apples a lot.